'Christmas is another working day': seafarers in Dubai celebrate away from home

Mission to Seafarers prepare to deliver festive packages to vessels in Dubai Maritime City

Christmas Day is a working day like any other for crews on shipping vessels. Getty Images
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Parish priest Kent Middleton leads a small team of relief workers, called Mission to Seafarers, who aim to help crews separated from their families over Christmas.

The mission's managing director is all too aware that long periods away from life on land can take their toll, with feelings of separation all the more focused at this special time of year.

The work of Father Middleton, who is also the mission’s justice and welfare chaplain, offers comfort and support to crews who sometimes find themselves thousands of kilometres from home.

It will have that heightened feeling of wishing they were at home
Father Kent Middleton

“This is a major livelihood for so many people around the world, and yet people aren't always aware of the work that's being done,” said Fr Middleton.

“Because they are out of sight, that doesn't mean they're any less important.

“Quite a large percentage of the seafarer population is Filipino who very much have Christmas on their minds at this time of year.

“But for those on board, it can still be a lonely time as they are detached and separated from their families.

“It's celebrations like these that heighten the detachment and they feel it more.”

Months at sea

This week, the mission will deliver hundreds of Christmas packages collected from a recent charity golf day to about 40 ships inside Dubai Maritime City, some of which are preparing for months-long voyages.

Donations of chocolates, biscuits and other festive treats have been packed in Christmas bags to offer some festive celebration for crews.

“Encouragingly, a lot of ships now have internet connections so they can contact their families. That does help,” said Fr Middleton, who is parish priest of St Luke’s Anglican Church in Ras Al Khaimah and St Nicholas’s Congregation in Fujairah.

“Christmas Day will be just like any other working day for them because of the routine. They are either out at sea on Christmas Day itself or they're coming into a port or leaving port. It's certainly not a day off.

“On some ships, maybe the cook will do something special on that day.

“Or they might organise something among themselves during their recreation time, it will have that heightened feeling of wishing they were at home with their loved ones.”

On a typical day, Fr Middleton would visit up to five ships to speak with the crew and check on their welfare.

It will be a busy festive period alongside his duties as parish priest. He has a Christmas Mass at 11pm at St Luke’s on Christmas Eve.

That will be followed by a Christmas morning service at the same church at 10.30am, before a festive lunch with friends.

But for seafarers it can be a lonely time, he said. “We are hearing more about seafarer welfare and the mental health support they often need.

“Not only seafarers but for a lot of people, it can be a very sad and lonely time.

“Christmas is supposed to be joyful and about light hope and peace, but it also brings to the surface a lot of suppressed emotions.”

Support centres

In 2024, the mission is exploring the opportunity to open seafarer support centres in the cruise terminals of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while workshops are also planned on dealing with the challenges of life at sea.

“It is a family on board ships,” said Fr Middleton.

“They are stuck together and have to make the most of being this family.

“Like any family, there is the father figure and sometimes you get on with the father figure and agree and sometimes you don't, sometimes you get on with your brother or you fight.

“Part of our ship-visiting, like in a normal family unit, is to give the reassurance that there are people who are there looking out for them.”

Updated: December 24, 2023, 11:49 AM